Edmund Burke remarked in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) that “rage and frenzy will pull down more in half an hour, than prudence, deliberation and foresight can build up in a hundred years.” We’re now in the midst of a Burkean half hour in our national life.
Rage and frenzy have become defining features of American politics. Each side points to the other side’s extremists to gin up its own base of support. Accusations of socialism, cultural Marxism, and white supremacy fly back and forth. Powered by unseemly and irresponsible rhetoric, the stakes of our political debates and elections grow artificially high, so high that a sizeable portion of one tribe has recently prostrated itself and its credibility on the altar of anti-democratic conspiracy theorizing and pure, simple self-delusion.
“Flight 93”-ism—the notion that the other side is so bad and so threatening that just about anything is justified to resist it—provides an on-ramp to rancid political rhetoric and behavior. Even worse, it threatens something precious that has been built up through centuries of Burkean prudence, deliberation, and foresight: the assumptions undergirding the American experiment in self-government, especially the primacy of the individual over the group and the political legitimacy of constitutional majorities. These two assumptions have not been under serious threat since international communism established its small yet significant American beachhead in the early to mid-20th century. Now, however, the ascendance of left-wing and right-wing extremism and each side’s all-consuming fear of the other’s extremist flank have together begun to chip away at these once-widespread assumptions.
Those most afflicted with rage and grievance on the left and right have been punching above their political weight for a long time. The temperate and sane have allowed their respective crazies to run amok. The Left and the Right have actively defended or quietly nodded along to their own side’s versions of irrational, childlike politics in order to keep an electoral lock on whatever “base” such politics secure. But winning an election by allowing our fundamental assumptions to be weakened isn’t just politics as usual; it is cowardice. It is past time for those who still honor our Founding assumptions to articulate them clearly and fight for them in electoral politics and on the wider field of ideas.
In short, it is time to put the children to bed. The adults who are still wedded to the American Founding’s core assumptions, no matter the passions of the moment, have to muster the courage to get back behind the wheel of governance and public debate by forcefully denouncing their own side’s children in the public square and at the ballot box.
Facing 20th-century communism and fascism, Americans like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., placed their hope in the “vital center“ of American politics. For Schlesinger, the vital center was made up of anti-communist liberals and non-fascist conservatives. Today it includes liberals averse to socialism, cultural-Marxism, and racism (as opposed to those who are “anti-racist”), along with pro-democracy conservatives averse to conspiracy theories and racism. These are today’s centrists, though not all are half-a-loaf political moderates.
The vital center can house welfare liberalism and fiscal conservatism, social liberalism and social conservatism. The animating force binding the vital center together is the essence of the American Founding. It is based on two firmly held beliefs. The first is a reasoned, principled conviction that individuals are endowed with dignity. The individual may not be sacrificed in order to right historical wrongs or address group-based grievances. The individual always comes first. The second is a commitment to democratic republicanism and constitutionalism. We need governments to restrain our impulse to escalate conflicts of interest and principles into physical violence. The principle of individual dignity demands that these governments be democratic. And, since the governors are no more perfect than the governed, they will need constitutional constraints on their actions.
The foremost advocate of the vital center—that is, of the connection between the dignity of the individual and the importance of constitutional majoritarianism—was Abraham Lincoln. In an 1854 speech opposing the Kansas-Nebraska Act, he previewed his arguments in the more famous 1858 Senate debates with Stephen Douglas. For Lincoln, the justification for government of, by, and for the people flowed from the dignity of individual persons. Thus, though democracy had to be safeguarded, it was illegitimate once it trampled on individuals’ fundamental rights. “My faith in the proposition that each man should do precisely as he pleases with all which is exclusively his own,” Lincoln argued, “lies at the foundation of the sense of justice there is in me. I extend the principles to communities of men, as well as to individuals.” Thus, enslavement of one man by another was the same tyranny, on a personal level, that corrupted non-democratic governments:
When the white man governs himself that is self-government; but when he governs himself, and also governs another man, that is more than self-government—that is despotism. If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that ‘all men are created equal;’ and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.
Lincoln, like the Founders before him, understood these truths of individual rights and democracy to be self-evident, accessible to all mankind through the power of our senses and capacity to reason. Although they are accessible, our acceptance of them is not inevitable. These truths must be articulated through reason and defended, as Lincoln defended them, in the face of those who would run roughshod over them in the name of a particular group or grievance.
Like Lincoln, we need to transform these core convictions regarding the primacy of the individual and the sanctity of constitutional democracy from quiet assumptions into clear demarcation lines in the battle of ideas, defending those ideals and challenging those who resist them to explain why their talking points are more intelligent and virtuous. We must have faith that when the question is pressed, when the childish extremes are no longer met with silence but openly challenged, the vast majority of Americans will side with us.
The center-left flank of the vital center must win out over the far Left, the center-right flank over the far Right. The two flanks may diverge a great deal when it comes to what policies their common assumptions require, but the divergence pales in comparison to what unites them: the assaults by their respective flanks on the vital center’s two bedrock assumptions. As David French wrote in The Dispatch in June,
America faces two culture wars. Yes, there are still the old battles over abortion, religious liberty, free speech, and gun rights. But there’s a new struggle between those forces—left and right—who seek to preserve America’s fundamental classical liberal values, including respect for pluralism, decency, and the foundational protections of the Bill of Rights, and illiberal opponents—left and right—who would sweep all that away for the sake of ‘social justice’ or the ‘highest good’ or simply for a man named Donald Trump.
The political Left has so far done a far better job in overtaking its extremist flank, as shown by the fact that Democrat Joe Biden, who opened his campaign with the words of the Declaration of Independence, will assume the presidency on January 20 while the GOP standard-bearer, Donald Trump, will likely still be trumpeting conspiracy theories of a “rigged election” over Twitter.
But the Left must mount a stronger attack against its own fringes in culture, news media, and entertainment. The mainstream of the Democratic Party may still hold fast to the vital center’s assumptions, but the same cannot be said for its activist class and many of its media and entertainment allies. Thus, the left side of the vital center must hold its ground in politics and gain ground in culture.
That holds even more true for the right flank of the vital center. The Right faces an uphill battle to extricate itself from the fever swamps of Trumpist cynicism and anti-democratic conspiracy theorizing. Much of its success in doing so will hinge on who wins the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. In the lead-up to 2024, conservatives must articulate a political agenda that does not paper over the reality that Donald Trump did indeed win the presidency in 2016 but honors the vital center’s core assumptions.
The anger, grievance, and alienation that fueled and sustained Trump’s rise cannot be ignored but must not be indulged; they must be confronted. It is necessary to acknowledge and offer policy solutions to the economic stagnation and social alienation that enabled Trumpism to flourish. It is emphatically not necessary to cater to the worst impulses thereof, the sorts of impulses that currently are trampling over the core democratic assumptions of the vital center and the Founding. Those impulses, especially the corrosive “Flight 93” approach to politics, must be exposed for what they are: destructive, unhelpful, and childish. The values of maturity, composure, patience, and prudence must find their way back into the Republican Party and the American Right. It is the job of conservatives in the vital center to bring them back, to overpower the hacks and quacks at the ballot box, on the Sunday shows, and in the op-ed pages.
The left and right flanks of the vital center need not and should not break away from their respective political parties. Apart from the practical difficulties, creating a third party would leave the two existing parties, along with many of their donors and voters, in the hands of the children who should be put to bed.
Instead, we must revive the strains of American liberalism and conservatism that stay true to the Founding principles and to liberal democracy. If the revival succeeds, the slogans of the far Left and far Right—from “defund the police” to “stop the steal”—will be muted. The children will be tucked in. The adults will be able to resume the work of politics and governance. The terms of debates will shift and laws will change, and the bedrock assumptions that gave life to our democratic republic and make it worthy of preservation will be secure once more.
Thomas Koenig is a recent graduate of Princeton University. He will enter Harvard Law School in the fall of 2021. Twitter @TomsTakes98.
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